In his brilliant (and lengthy) new New Yorker piece, correspondent Evan Osnos, on the ground in Pyongyang, writes about having dinner with a Foreign Ministry official who wants to know: “…what is the power of the President to launch a war?” He then asks whether the Congress also has the power to decide. Osnos replies: ” A President can do a lot without the Congress.” But what about the nuclear codes, the official next asks. And then whether it was true that the ” the black bag is controlled by McMaster?” That reference was to H.R. McMaster, the President’s national-security adviser. Then this Dr. Strangelove-like exchange. Osnos clarifies that, no, actually, the American President “can launch nukes largely on his own.” The North Korean official quickly confirms that “Our Supreme Leader has absolute power to launch a war.” Thus the horrifying prospect of what Osnos earlier describes as the two fingers on the buttons belonging to a ” senescent real-estate mogul and reality-television star and a young third-generation dictator who has never met another head of state.” We should now be all drenched in perspiration, especially after his ” fire and fury” threat to Kim Jong-Un
But can we breathe easier knowing that Commander in Chief Trump will have at his side Secretary of Defense General James Mattis, Chief of Staff, General John Kelly, and his National Security Adviser Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster? We may now feel this way knowing that Mattis, Kelly, and McMaster are honourable men and counterweights to Trump’s erratic personality and untested leadership? But wouldn’t we have been alarmed by this prospect in the past: the President of the United States beholden to the military who conspired to control his decision making regarding the possible deployment of nuclear weapons.
What has stuck in my mind is the 1964 film ” Seven Days in May” that starred Burt Lancaster as a right-wing general, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is plotting a coup d’etat to seize power from the President. Lancaster is dedicated to stopping the President (played by Frederick March) from signing a nuclear disarmament treat with the Soviet Union that he hopes will end the cold war. It doesn’t happen in the end because a junior officer, an aide to Lancaster (played by Kirk Douglas) reveals the plot.
We can take some comfort in knowing that in our real life drama, the President’s National Security Adviser is not only a military man but a scholar who has written a highly praised book examining the failed decision making that contributed to the Vietnam War.
And more relevant to our current confrontation with North Korea, McMaster in “Dereliction of Duty” reflects on the lessons learned by President Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.
“Although Kennedy was pleased with McNamara [Robert McNamara], the deliberations increased his frustration with his military advisers. The crisis ended with Kennedy thinking that the Joint Chiefs were ‘mad’ in their insistence on the use of military force. On November 15, 1962, while discussing the JCS performance during the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy vowed that the ‘first advice I’m going to give my successor is to watch the generals and avoid feeling that just because they were military men their opinion[s] on military matters were worth a damn. The Chiefs’ persistence in recommending a full-scale attack appeared insensitive to political constraints and the dangers of nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union.
Kennedy, in McMaster’s account, uses the word ‘mad’ to characterise the thinking of his top generals. Now McMaster serves a President Trump who reportedly relishes being perceived by the North Koreans as a `Madman’ unafraid to launch a nuclear weapon at them.
Perhaps McMaster, Kelly, and Mattis- like Henry Kissinger in the Nixon Administration -are supportive of Trump’s bellicose rhetoric yet Mattis didn’t hesitate to contradict his President after he blurted out that “Talking is not the answer.” Snapped Mattis shortly after Trump spoke: ” We’re never out of diplomatic solutions.”
Breathe in, breathe out 123, breathe in, breathe out 123.